Some Thoughts on Jazz
and the Media

In her book As Serious as Your Life, Valerie Wilmer became linked with Denis with two notorious sentences, classifying Denis forever; now, in her obituary, she again reduces his life to drugs -- recovery from them. She writes that his 'final achievement was two and a half years of sobriety after a lifetime of narcotic addiction'. Now, in today's 12-step world, it is acceptable to give words like sobriety, achievement and lifetime different meanings. How can one separate Denis' life experiences, his remarkable qualities, from experiences that were part of his life? True, middle-class white folks, especially, continue to desire the frisson associated with the dangers of experiences like having to sleep on the subway, giving up control of one's life, using drugs which are not socially acceptable. It is fascinating -- to watch someone who has lived this and also lived the limousine life and travelled to many countries -- and imagine the darker side of his life.

 Sure, Denis was proud of beating his demon lover -- never failing to remind us that pure heroin poured into Harlem after American Blacks returned from WW2 to find the same ole' 'merican racism. Of course, his had been an unusual habit, to begin with. He had years of using only intermittently, years and months of 'sobriety', and many, many days and years of living and of playing in altered states ranging from wine to heroin to his own sense of the sacred.

 Drugs and sobriety always make for good media coverage. It has always been interesting to me that, despite the fact that many entertainers and artists are known to use various mind-altering substances, Denis' name, out of the thousands of others, always manages to conjure up the discussion of drugs or recovery. Why is that? Is it just the result of a scared Valerie Wilmer's few sentences many years ago, as she climbed the stairs of an abandoned building in Harlem? It is one of those remarkable quirks of history. Perhaps it was because, even when using, Denis was an "honourable junkie" (in Wilmer's words). No one feared Denis, or was scared to have him in their home. Denis never stole anything, used trust against someone, and never flaunted those achievements. Denis loved the world, generously. This is what made Denis remarkable, and this shone through, whether waters were muddy or clear. It may also explain his lack of ego -- the desire to step on everyone to be a star. Certainly, Denis spoke about his demon lover and was proud of all he had learned, but this 'two years of sobriety' was not Denis' final achievement.

 Denis' final achievement is still evolving -- in the lives of young musicians he has supported, the lives of the people he walked among in the East Village -- with a smile and a warmth and a sincerity and wisdom that was born of all his experiences and his responses to them -- including the heroin, including the jazz, including the wine and the pain and the cold and the jazz. Denis could create an intimacy between himself and others that was remarkable -- honest, sincere, probing, non-threatening, never turned against someone. He was open to all sorts of people, all sorts of art. His spirit is almost palpable to those of us who love him, still, even now. Denis is dead and that is sad, however there is something about him that makes it hard to remain sad. This is Denis' final achievement -- to show us how a beautiful spirit continues to influence the world -- not only through his music but through his life. This is truly a remarkable achievement.

 Melanie MacLennan 4/30/98
 Comments are welcome! (E-mail or sign the guestbook)

Previous Writing on Denis Back to "Writings" Page


Back to Writings

E-mail us at



View Guestbook
Sign Guestbook

E-mail us

[Home] [Discography] [Tributes] [Writings] [ Articles] [Photo Gallery] [Obituaries] [Resources]